John Ford, though a man of a prickly and mercurial nature, was a director with great artistic vision and critical and popular success. Despite his laudatory career and multiple awards it took many years for the stars to align for Ford's pet project, a film based on Maurice Walsh's 1935 short story The Quiet Man. It may have been due to timing or casting. Perhaps the failure of studio executives to see any box office in the slight story or understand Ford's vision of expressing his lead character's nostalgic yearning and his journey through a mix of humour, mythology and Irish literary tradition. Whatever the hurdles, the path was finally cleared by the man Ford befriended, bullied and made a star, John Wayne.
Wayne was at this time making his first steps into production with Angel and the Badman and The Fighting Kentuckian at Republic Studios when he broached the idea of The Quiet Man to Herbert Yates. Yates immediately saw the prestige of having a Ford picture under the Republic banner, but wanted a buffer against the possibility of box office failure. The Quiet Man and its Irish location shooting was approved if, first, John Ford gave the studio a western. As the publicity poster proclaimed he gave them "John Ford's Greatest Romantic Triumph!".
Rio Grande is at its core a story about healing, the coming together of a broken couple, a broken family and a broken country. Based on a Saturday Evening Post story by James Warner Bellah (Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) with a screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness (Tarzan and His Mate, Arsene Lupin Returns) Rio Grande is set at an isolated cavalry outpost in the southwest where Colonel Kirby Yorke, played by John Wayne, contends with raiding Apaches who escape U.S. authorities by crossing over the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo into Mexico. York's superior, General Philip Sheridan, played with a gruff professionalism by J. Carroll Naish (Sahara, A Medal for Benny) gives Kirby a covert order to disobey the rules and at the next opportunity pursue the Apaches into the neighbouring country. It is an impossible mission where Yorke's actions will be condemned by the very people who gave them.
John Wayne, J. Carroll Naish
Sheridan: "If you fail, I assure you members of your court martial will be the men who rode with us at Shenandoah."
Sheridan, Yorke and burly Sgt. Quincannon played by Victor McLaglen (The Informer, Gunga Din) share a bond which reaches back to their service in the Civil War when their activities on behalf of the Union caused a rift between Kirby Yorke and his southern-born wife, Kathleen. Maureen O'Hara (Miracle on 34th Street, The Black Swan) plays the tempestuous Kathleen Yorke. For the first time movie audiences were treated to the electric chemistry and unique friendship that made Duke and Miss O'Hara one of Hollywood's most enduring screen teams. The beauty of our stars and the stark location of the film is enhanced by the black and white cinematography of Bert Glennon, Oscar-nominated for Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk and Dive Bomber.
Claude Jarmin Jr., John Wayne
Jeff: "I'm not on this post to call you father."
Among recruits new to this frontier posting is Jefferson Yorke, the teenaged son of Kathleen and Kirby, played by Claude Jarmin Jr. (The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, Hangman's Knot). Failing in mathematics at West Point, "Jeff" enlisted and finds himself face-to-face with the father he has never known due to his parent's long separation.
Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarmin Jr.
John Wayne, Chill Wills, Fred Kennedy, Victor McLaglen
Sandy: "He said he was the teacher's pet of a chowder-headed mick sergeant. What's that mean, doc?"
Kirby Yorke is pleased to meet the son who is following in his footsteps and flustered at how to handle the uncommon role of a father. Jeff is a good kid who does his best and makes friends easily. Those friends include Trooper Travis Tyree played with an appealing grace and ease by Ben Johnson (Wagon Master, Shane, The Last Picture Show) and the affable Trooper Sandy Boone played by Harry Carey Jr. (Red River, Three Godfathers, TVs The Adventures of Spin and Marty). A highlight of the film is a display by these three actors of Roman Riding with the riders standing on more than one horse and jumping. The trick riding is at the behest of Sgt. Quincannon who acts as an "uncle" toward Trooper Yorke. The seeming favouritism leads to a fight between Jeff and Trooper Heinz. Heinz is a lovely and memorable role for stuntman Fred Kennedy, who had been in films since 1938s The Adventures of Robin Hood and worked with Ford on many occasions. Tragically, Kennedy would be killed performing a routine stunt on 1959s The Horse Soldiers.
John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara
Kathleen: "Ramrod, wreckage and ruin, still the same Kirby Yorke."
Kirby: "Special privileges to special born, still the same Kathleen."
The routine of the post and its commander's defences are assaulted by the arrival of Kathleen Yorke, determined to purchase Jeff's release from the army. The attraction between Kirby and Kathleen is as undeniable as their clinging to past grievances and stubborn refusal to understand the other's point of view. Will proximity, hardship and the example of their maturing son be enough to bring the couple together. Perhaps music will soften their hearts. Victor Young's (Shane, Around the World in Eighty Days) score is very fine and a personal favourite of mine. The soundtrack is filled with songs by Stan Jones such as the lovely My Gal is Purple, and Dale Evans' peppy Aha, San Antone. The familiar tunes I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and Down by the Glenside may not be appropriate to the time of the story, but are certainly appropriate to the tone of the film. The songs are beautifully sung by the regimental singers aka the Sons of the Pioneers in cavalry guise, with the soulful Ken Curtis taking lead vocals.
One of the things I like best about Ford's cinematic storytelling is that he brings us into a fully formed world such as the society of the post in Rio Grande. A look between characters, an attitude or a cryptic remark infers a back story for the imaginative viewer. There's a novel behind those looks that pass among Kirby and his officers.
Anticipating a hard winter of campaigning, the women and children, including 10-year-old Karolyn Grimes (It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, Blue Skies) and 11-year-old Patrick Wayne (Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Young Guns) are to be transferred to safety at Fort Bliss. When the children are captured in a raid and taken across the border, volunteer troopers Tyree, Boone and Yorke take the lead in a dangerous mission to bring the children home safely to their anxious parents. The theme of reunification is amplified once again in Rio Grande.
Rio Grande has it all - action, drama, romance, humour, songs and riding "after the manner of the ancient Romans".
TCM is screening Rio Grande on Wednesday, April 23rd at 10:45 am, as John Wayne is April's Star of the Month with wall-to-wall Duke playing on the network from Monday, April 21st to Friday, April 25th. Sounds like any five days at my house!